Between the World and Me

Further Study

Study Questions

Further Study Study Questions

Why is “the Struggle” an important concept for Coates to pass on to Samori?

Coates has spent most of his life in the midst of “the Struggle.” He defines this as an emotional struggle about how to live within his body and feel free as a black man even though he lives in a country that enslaved his ancestors, and he can see that legacy all around him. Through engaging with that struggle, Coates became very well read, and he grows up using writing to investigate his own thoughts. Unlike many people, Coates openly welcomes challenges to his thoughts. He debates and argues with his teachers and a group of like-minded poets in college. Through these debates, he realizes that the point of his education is to leave him in a state of discomfort that destroys all romanticized views of a nation or race. For a while, Coates views the African people as nobility who were separated from their roots and sees them as blameless. But he realizes that his view is similar to the way white Americans, whom he calls Dreamers, so often view America as blameless.

Above all, Coates wants Samori to be a conscious citizen, aware of the world in all its terribleness. Even as a black person, Samori might get sucked into a version of the American Dream or develop a dream of his own race as Coates did in college. Struggling with his thoughts, debating, and reading allows Coates to understand that no nation or race is blameless, and it is better to live with a realistic, if complex, understanding of history and racism. He wants the same outcome for his son, Samori, which can only come from “the Struggle.” As Coates says near the beginning of his letter, he has never answered the question of how to live freely in his black body, but the search is worth it because it has girded him against the fear of disembodiment.

Why does Coates resent the school system as a child?

Coates sees the school system and the streets as two heads of the same beast, but, in a way, school is the worse of the two. Both institutions limit the control he has over his body. In the streets, the lack of control is evident through physical violence. If he makes a misstep with his body language or says the wrong thing, he can get hurt. Learning how to survive in school is, in many ways, more difficult. The schools only seem concerned with producing good students and that means students who stay quietly in line. Coates has extraordinary curiosity, but the schools aren’t interested in the curiosities of black boys and girls. Instead, schools tell them to grow up to be good people and say that staying in school will keep them out of jail. Coates cannot understand why school is presented only as a deterrent from prison instead of as a place of learning.

In Coates’ school textbooks, the only people of importance are white. There is no intellectual figure that he can relate to, so he turns to Malcom X, whose views are not presented or discussed in his school. Rather, the black heroes in school are the non-violent protestors of the Civil Rights Movement. Coates thinks it is shameful that those people would allow themselves to be beaten. The pictures even make it seem like they enjoyed it. He can only compare the pictures with his own streets, and practicing non-violence in the ghetto means that you might die. He doesn’t understand why the schools would glorify black people that, to him, are so irrelevant and removed from his own black experience. Thus, the biggest cruelty that Coates sees within the school system is that if one doesn’t do well in school, they are just sent back to the streets. And yet, if one goes to jail as a result of the streets, they are told they should have stayed in school. Both the schools and the streets seem to enforce the same trap of violence and prison.

What role does fear play in Coates’ life?

Fear is an ever-present demon for Coates. He grows up afraid because his neighborhood is violent. As a black man, he is also afraid of the police. There are so many instances of police beating or murdering black people without evidence or reason, and the killer going free. Coates recognizes early on that a black man’s errors cost him double that of a white man. As a parent, Coates’ fear manifests when he is afraid whenever Samori leaves him because he knows he cannot protect Samori from the world. He knows that, as a black man, Samori faces more instances of unjust violence and can be assaulted or arrested for almost anything.

In fact, Coates believes his own neighborhood is violent because of fear. He says he can see fear in every violent act and every action made to frighten others, from dramatic clothing to loud, intimidating music. Ultimately, it all stems from a fear of what was done to their ancestors. Every black person understands that their life can be taken from them easily, so they proactively do whatever possible to remain in control of their bodies, even if that means hurting others. Parents, too, are driven by fear. They know their children can be killed easily, so, for example, Coates’ father beats him and says: “Either I can beat him, or the police.” Beatings are done to show the children that they really have no security over their bodies.